Nudge Nudge

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge has been highly influential since its publication in 2009. It adds further weight to the argument that policy and decision-making is less straightforward than it might at first seem.

Their basic premise is that direct instruction and compulsion challenge our sense of autonomy, thereby switching us off, and often having the opposite effects to those intended.

A classic of the kind is the motorway reminder “Wearing seatbelts saves lives” which has been shown to be more persuasive than a more direct piece of information threatening prosecution. Health warnings on cigarette packets take a somewhat similar approach.

More surprisingly, the impact of default settings can be huge. For example, two European countries with radically different organ donation rates (otherwise-similar Germany and Austria) were shown to achieve that result simply because one country has an opt-in policy to organ donation while the other has an opt-out.

Followers of Sunstein and Tholer include Barrack Obama and David Cameron. Recent changes to U.K. pension contributions legislation has indeed changed the default setting, with the intention of increasing contributions to individuals’ pension funds. It seems to work.

Teachers are of course, past masters at Nudging. Every raised eyebrow in class, every sideways glance and emphatically cleared throat sends a discrete but clear message to the recipients. In many cases, these are more effective than a directly-voiced command, not least because they avoid a direct challenge to pupils’ autonomy, and perhaps because it contains just a suspicion of humour.

When marking, a comment to the effect of “You could also have…” is possibly more effective than “You did not…” or even “You needed to…”

I think the Nudge approach deserves a higher profile. The temptation may be to expect teachers to use very direct control and high-profile forms of organisation. For some individuals, these may work perfectly well, but for others a more nuanced nudge-based approach may be more appropriate, and it is not necessarily inferior.

This recent article suggested as much.

The same approach could no doubt be extended: maybe with some thought we could consider the default settings for meeting deadlines, for expected behaviour in class, even for how our classroom layouts and individual personalities can be used to nudge pupils in beneficial directions without compromising their autonomy. Maybe those who manage and judge teachers might like to consider the benefits of the same approach too.

This is not a new idea, though Sunstein and Tholer have shone a helpful light on the matter. It deserves to be more widely known.

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